WVOE-AM reaches 50-year milestone


Radio One’s WOL-AM DC has some good company: Ebony Enterprises’ WVOE-AM in Chadbourn, NC first signed on in April, 1962 and is now the oldest African American owned radio station in the South—50 years. As minority-owned stations across the country have been forced to shut down, abandon their formats or lease their signals, the 1,000-watt Gospel station on 1590 kHz remains what its founders intended in 1962: The Voice of Ebony.

“There have been some lean years,” 85-year old Manager and PD Willie Walls told The AP. “Lean? Let’s make that some pitiful years. Nobody’s getting rich here. But that’s all right. This is our community. This is our family. And that’s why this station was created in the first place.”

Walls didn’t grow up dreaming of running a radio station: “I was a teacher of agriculture at the Chadbourn Negro School when Mr. Reynolds asked me to have lunch with him.”

T.M. Reynolds, a Chadbourn businessman, wanted to create an electronic voice to serve the minority population of southeastern North Carolina. At the time, there were several other stations in the region, but, Walls notes, “None of them were set up by the people we would be serving.”

Although hundreds of Southern stations in the 1950s aimed their format at black audiences, the number actually owned by minorities could be counted on one hand. The best known, such as WERD in Atlanta and WDIA in Memphis, were both purchased from white owners.

So Reynolds and a handful of local investors set up shop in a small converted home just north of town. The living room was made into a business office and the bedrooms, into DJ booths.

The format was simple: Gospel music, some blues and jazz, and a lot of community news, said the story. On weekends, local choirs would cram into the studio to perform live for folks who couldn’t get to church. To develop local content, Reynolds sought the help of Annie Mae Williamson.

“Mr. Reynolds came to my house and asked me to help,” Williamson recalls. “I didn’t know anything about radio, but he said he wanted a person like me just to talk and share the local news. He wanted a show that the women would like.”

50 years later, every morning, at 11 a.m., Williamson is still settled in her chair for the “Woman’s World Program.” She updates listeners on who’s doing what around town, who passed away and what’s coming up: “When you’re shut in, you miss out on a lot. If I’m ever feeling poorly, I think of those people and next thing you know, I’m back here, ready to go.”

On the other side of the studio glass, show engineer Roger Brace casually flips through a collection of dog-eared LPs, searching for the perfect song to close Williamson’s show. WVOE has modern gear, but most of its music is still on vinyl, and the old twin turntable studio gets a workout.

It’s the same studio where Elder Ronald Johnson, now sales manager, was pressed into emergency duty 42 years ago.

“I came to work as a salesman,” he says, grinning at the memory. “One day, the guy working on-air came to work a little bit tipsy. I was asked to fill in, and I guess I did OK. At least they didn’t chase me off the air.”

More than 40 years later, he still takes a spin as a DJ: “This is a fun group of people, like a family sort of. I don’t know what I’d do if we weren’t all here.”

Read the full AP story here

RBR-TVBR observation: The live and local formula still works for many stations—and WVOE is certainly no exception. It’s airing in a bit of a microcosm—the largest town within signal range is still not huge—Lumberton, NC. WVOE is not a move-in, nor was it likely ever considered to be part of a cluster. It didn’t move over to FM and its weekends aren’t filled with brokered time. Consolidation missed WVOE and lo and behold, it’s still here and fully staffed, serving the community—maybe even for another 50 years.